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Aurora Institute

Systems of Assessments that Support Student-Centered Learning and Continuous Improvement

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Susan Gentz

Issues: Federal Policy, Harness Opportunities in ESSA, State Policy, Build Balanced Systems of Assessments


students group working on school project together on tablet computer at modern university

When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was first enacted in 1965, its goal was  to ensure that the most vulnerable pupils were receiving equitable resources. Through the decades the law has evolved on a spectrum of virtually no accountability or standards for districts to an era where accountability was based on one single end of the year summative assessment.

The most recent reauthorization of ESEA, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), provides states and localities flexibility that can be used to create competency-based, personalized learning environments. The passage of the ESSA in December 2015 ushered in a new era–a historic opportunity to rethink systems of assessments to support continuous improvement of student-centered learning.

ESSA allows states to design systems of assessments that are focused on continuous, real-time improvement of student learning towards college and career readiness, rapid closure of subgroup achievement gaps, and provide the flexibility to align with and support next generation learning models.

ESSA includes a number of key provisions to help states interested in building next generation assessment systems. All states may now develop systems of assessments (for federal accountability purposes) that incorporate individual student growth, use multiple measures of student learning from multiple points in time to determine summative scores, and use adaptive assessments that can measure students where they are in their learning.

A new Innovative Assessment Pilot allows up to seven (initially) states to design systems of assessments that include other types of assessments, including performance-based assessments. These improvements will help states design more useful assessments that guide improvements in teaching and learning to ensure all students master the academic knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary for success in college and career.

ESSA specifically permits the use of competency-based assessments, instructionally embedded assessments, interim assessments, cumulative year-end assessments, computer adaptive assessments, and performance-based assessments.

Prior to the passage of ESSA, federal law prohibited the use of adaptive assessments and testing outside of a student’s grade level for federal accountability purposes. Adaptive assessments can be used to more accurately pinpoint student performance and growth, in addition to determining grade-level proficiency. Students should be allowed to move on when ready. Students should also get the supports they need to stay on track and the education system needs to identify and meet students where they are in their learning.

Allowing multiple assessments throughout the year provides an important step forward for competency-based education, as it opens up the possibility to administer assessments when students are ready to take them. Multiple measures throughout the year empower educators and students to continuously monitor and improve learning.

A truly competency-based education system will shift to modernized systems of assessments. Students will no longer take “fill in the bubble exams,” but demonstrate mastery in various ways, such as performance-based assessments. Performance based assessments require both the graders and assessments to be objective, and that calls for inter-rater reliability. The term “inter-rater reliability” refers to the degree of agreement among raters. Localities participating in competency-based education must cultivate educators to use professional judgement to ensure quality and equitable grading of assessments. This will require significant attention to and investment in building educator and leader capacity for next generation assessments.

Promising State Policy for Modernizing Systems of Assessments

New Hampshire

New HampshireIn 2012, New Hampshire began to pilot a new system of assessments that supported the state’s comprehensive shift away from seat time. This new strategy was an outgrowth of the statewide shift away from seat time towards competency and was authorized in Title XV, Chapter 193-C of the New Hampshire Education Code.

The Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) system was approved by the US Department of Education in 2015 for use in state accountability under the Secretary’s waiver authority at the time. The Innovative Assessment Pilot in ESSA will allow up to seven (initially) states to apply for the type of flexibility that was provisionally granted to New Hampshire for the PACE pilot. This is a historic opportunity for states to rethink systems of assessments to support personalized learning.

PACE’s key components include:

  • common performance tasks that have high technical quality,
  • locally designed performance tasks with guidelines for ensuring high technical quality,
  • regional scoring sessions and local district peer review audits to ensure sound accountability ESSA allows states to design systems of assessments that are focused on continuous, real-time improvement of student learning towards college and career readiness, rapid closure of subgroup achievement gaps, and provide the flexibility to align with and support next generation learning models.

According to the New Hampshire Department of Education, the successful implementation of this new, innovative system of assessments requires significant local capacity and buy in: “The pilot required extensive training and local commitment to managing their testing locally.” Although the work was partly funded with generous grants from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the PACE pilot project requires a large scale commitment by administrators and teachers of participating districts.


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